YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Disinformation threatening our democracy and our health.
OFFICER HARRY DUNN: (From video.) How the blank could something like this happen? Is this America?
MS. ALCINDOR: Raw and emotional testimony at the first select committee hearing on the Capitol attack.
OFFICER MICHAEL FANONE: (From video.) The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful.
MS. ALCINDOR: Four police officers describe putting their lives on the line and demand justice.
REPRESENTATIVE LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): (From video.) Will we preserve the peaceful transition of power or will we be so blinded by partisanship that we throw away the miracle of America?
MS. ALCINDOR: Lawmakers including Republican Liz Cheney pledge to get to the bottom of what happened and who is responsible. Plus –
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) This is an American tragedy. People are dying and will die who don’t have to die.
MS. ALCINDOR: As the Delta variant spreads, President Biden announces new vaccine requirements and the CDC reverses its mask guidance, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. The Capitol insurrection took place 205 days ago and the nation is still grappling with how such a violent attack could have happened in the heart of our democracy. To get to some answers on Tuesday, the House select committee investigating January 6th held its first hearing. Lawmakers heard powerful testimony from four police officers who defended the Capitol and the people inside.
SERGEANT AQUILINO GONELL: (From video.) On January 6th for the first time I was more afraid to work at the Capitol than my entire deployment to Iraq.
OFFICER MICHAEL FANONE: (From video.) I was electrocuted again and again and again with a taser. I remember thinking there was a very good chance I would be torn apart or shot to deal with my own weapon.
OFFICER DANIEL FANONE: (From video.) The mob of terrorists were coordinating their efforts now, shouting “heave, ho” as they synchronized pushing their weight forward, crushing me further against the metal doorframe. One latched onto my face and got his thumb in my right eye, attempting to gouge it out.
OFFICER HARRY DUNN: (From video.) One woman in a pink MAGA shirt yelled, “You hear that guys? This – (censored) – voted for Joe Biden.” Then the crowd, perhaps around 20 people, joined in screaming, “Boo – (censored).”
MS. ALCINDOR: Their experiencings were – their experiences were heartbreaking and underscored the crisis our democracy faces at the same time our nation is also dealing with a deepening health crisis. The pandemic is intensifying as the Delta variant surges.
Joining us tonight to discuss all of this are Kelly O’Donnell, White House correspondent for NBC News; Ryan Reilly, senior justice reporter for HuffPost; and Rachel Scott, congressional correspondent for ABC News. Thank you, all of you, for being here.
Rachel, I want to start with you. This hearing was remarkable. It was such a heavy day. My question is, talk about the power of what you saw, what we all saw, and what might come of this.
RACHEL SCOTT: Yeah, you know, I think when the chairman started that hearing he said that this is not going to be easy, and it really wasn’t. I think some of the most striking testimony, you heard it from Officer Dunn, too, where he said how can this not be political. This was a political rally. It started with a political rally that turned into a riot. You heard the pain in their voices. You saw how visibly upset they still are being forced to relive those experiences, and all they want is answers. I had an opportunity to talk to Officer Fanone. Hours before that hearing he told me that even though he knew it would be hard reliving the pain from that day, that he wanted the truth to get out. And in the middle of that hearing, the brother of Craig – of Brian Sicknick called me. His name is Craig. He told me he could not bring himself to watch the hearing, that it’s so painful for him to see the violence, and he just is left with this answer of why – why did this happen and how can we prevent it.
MS. ALCINDOR: Why, that’s – I mean, it’s such a good question. Kelly, you were – you were nodding your head. When I think about Officer Dunn, I think about the fact that he compared what happened to a hitman and said if a hitman sent this crowd out or sent someone to kill someone, that person – of course the hitman would go to jail, but so would the person who hired them. Talk a bit about the accountability here and the idea that we – the idea that there might not be accountability or there will be accountability, and what impact might this have on former President Trump.
KELLY O’DONNELL: Well, I was at the rally that day where former – then-President Trump was talking with the crowd, and one of the things that struck me as I was beginning to walk with the crowd, they were saying he’s coming with us to the Capitol when, as a White House reporter, I already knew the president was going to be heading back to the White House; he would not be going there. There was a link between the people who attended that rally and ultimately went to the Capitol and what their expectations of then-President Trump were.
I think one of the things we’ll have to look for is the power of the subpoena. What will this committee be able to do beyond the emotion we saw from these officers, which was vivid and visceral and gave us – we’d seen so much of this from a wide-angle view of all that violence and all that noise at the Capitol, and they made it so personal and so individual. But what comes next, I think, is will they be able through subpoena power to get documents that tell us about what happened inside the White House that day, who spoke to President Trump, what was happening there. Will there be witnesses from that administration, people the president spoke to who will provide testimony when the committee convenes again? Will that give us a window into what was happening? Could the president at that time have done more? Was he given the sufficient warnings? There are plenty of people saying that’s certainly the case and that he did not send help in an urgent way, in fact watched it as sort of a spectacle. And so I think the subpoena is the thing to watch going down the line.
MS. ALCINDOR: And I want to ask you a quick follow up, which is after 9/11, the terrorist attacks, we saw these real pushes to prevent another attack like this from happening. Do you think that this committee – as someone who’s covered Capitol Hill – who covered Capitol Hill for a long time, do you think this committee might get to that point where we could actually prevent future January 6ths?
MS. O’DONNELL: It’s so hard because there is such a fragile and volatile political mix right now. I think part of what those rioters had was the element of surprise, much like 9/11. Now we know from being in Washington, and anyone who visits here as part of their summer vacation, much harder to get close to the Capitol. So there are hardened defenses that exist now. But are there ongoing threats to democracy? Very definitely, and if this committee can shine a light, can try to expose what really happened, and maybe some of those who were swept up in it – who were not those charged with what was happening there but just swept up in it even as observers from afar – maybe they will have a better understanding or insight about how fragile our democracy can be.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, Ryan, we had to, of course, have a justice reporter on this week. Talk a bit about the fact that these people – some of them are being tracked down by online sleuths, some of them are being charged, but we also heard officers call them terrorists, but they’re not being charged with terrorist – with terrorism.
RYAN REILLY: Yeah, I mean, what’s interesting is I think that people don’t necessarily have the best understanding of what domestic terrorism means exactly. Basically, what that means is that it’s something that’s motivated by something here, so when people designate between foreign terrorism and domestic terrorism what they’re really talking about is the underlying ideology. So with foreign terrorism, that essentially operationally boils down to being Islamic extremist groups. Domestic terrorism is much more broad and there’s not actually a specific law on the books that bans domestic terrorism outright. After someone is sentenced under another federal charge, they can be – give sort of a little bit of a boost in their sentencing because, you know, it’s a domestic terrorism case, but that’s not actually what they’re charged with. So, you know, the Justice Department’s going to be very judicious about when they use the term “domestic terrorism” because if you look back at our history, obviously, you know, in the past – throughout the history of the FBI, throughout the history of the United States, the term “terrorism” has been used in very awful ways against political enemies, so that’s something that I think the Justice Department’s going to be very careful about and make sure that they have the facts lined up before they come out and say this person’s a terrorist.
MS. ALCINDOR: And before the hearing on Tuesday a group of Republican lawmakers blamed Speaker Pelosi for the Capitol attack.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) On January 6th these brave officers were put into a vulnerable and impossible position because the leadership at the top has failed.
REPRESENTATIVE ELISE STEFANIK (R-NY): (From video.) The American people deserve to know the truth, that Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility as speaker of the House for the tragedy that occurred on January 6th.
MS. ALCINDOR: Now, to be clear, those claims are false. On January 6th the Capitol Police were responsible for the security of Congress. But Ryan, I’m going to turn to you. What’s the actual truth here? Break that down a bit more.
MR. REILLY: Yeah, that – yean, I mean, that’s just not the case. There’s a little – there’s a little bit of a distance between the oversight of the Capitol Police. There’s an oversight board. And you know, what they’re not mentioning here, of course, is there’s two components to Congress, right? We all learned this in – (laughs) – in grade school, there is the House and there is the Senate. And together, those two organizations are in charge – the heads of those two organizations. And who’s in charge of the Senate? Who was in charge of the Senate at that point? Of course, Mitch McConnell. So that’s what Republicans are, of course, leaving out here. This idea that Nancy Pelosi is somehow in charge of the entire Capitol Police system is just – is just false.
MS. ALCINDOR: And this afternoon news broke that late last year former President Trump pressured top Justice Department officials to say that the election was corrupt, even though there was no widespread fraud. According to the notes from the acting attorney general’s deputy, former President Trump said, quote, “just say that the election was corrupt,” plus, “leave the rest to me and our congressmen.” Now, I’m going to come to Ryan in a bit, but Rachel – (laughs) – what’s the significance of this? You covered President Trump right along with me – former President Trump – right along with me. And what does it mean that he’s using almost every lever of power to try to overturn that election in 2020?
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, and I think what is interesting here is that what he was saying privately he was also saying out loud publicly. He was saying it right after the election. He was saying it in an effort to overturn his election loss. And what it is, is just flat-out lies. But it shows you the lengths that the former president was willing to go to try and convince everyone around him – from his supporters, to aides, to people inside of the White House – to get on his side, to join his team, to have this idea of loyalty, to back him.
And there’s going to be outrage over it. We’re seeing that outrage spill out on Capitol Hill and it’s adding to this sort of desire to really investigate and get to the bottom of it. But again, all of this is becoming very political now, where you have Republicans that are eager to sort of turn the page and move on, eyeing the midterm elections when they’re trying to win back the House and the Senate.
MS. ALCINDOR: All of that, and Ryan – (laughs) – when I think about what Rachel’s pointing out here, there’s this idea of who are we actually going to see? Kelly talked a bit about subpoena power. We saw the DOJ weigh in a bit about what officials can and can’t do. Who do you think may or may not be subpoenaed? Not only DOJ officials, but I also wonder if congressmen can be forced to testify.
MR. REILLY: Yeah, I mean, we’re all going to relearn the name Jeffrey Rosen, because everyone sort of forgets who that was, right? (Laughter.) He was the acting attorney general, right? That’s someone who’s going to come back into this, and I think that’ll be very important. We all remember, of course, Jeff Sessions and William Barr, but this was, of course, in that key period right after William Barr, you know, denied and came out and said the truth, that there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the election. And this is who sort of took his place. So that was a very vulnerable time for the Justice Department. And I mean, you know, that was just a really intense period and you see sort of the wall held up a little bit there.
But, I mean, that was really an ongoing theme of the Trump administration. If you look at it from the campaign, you look to the Muller Report, you look to the Ukraine scandal, he didn’t really respect that blind between the Justice Department and the White House. And I think that that’s something during the Biden administration that there’s been a lot of effort to sort of build back up again. That’s very important to Merrick Garland, to make sure that that wall is in place, to make sure that there’s not this direct political influence on ongoing criminal cases.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Kelly, Ryan’s talking about this through-line. And I think, you know, not respecting the line between the DOJ and the White House is probably a nice way to put it, right? We saw this president over and over again want to see the DOJ act almost as his personal attorney, according to a lot of critics, and to his own DOJ officials. I’m also struck by the idea in 2016 President Trump – former President Trump said, I alone can fix it, talking about the political system. What do you make of the idea that here he’s saying: I can fix this election in 2020? If you just give it me and my friends in Congress, I can figure this out.
MS. O’DONNELL: So much of Donald Trump’s political identity was that notion that the force of his personality could do things. And he would run over traditional lines, legal lines, tradition in a sense about how you define things. Like, his trouble with impeachment with the Ukrainian president, running over another line. He did that frequently. So much of what he did he did say out loud. These new notes related to those conversations are very similar to what we heard in the taped recordings when he was speaking to state-level elections officials. So he went to every door he could to try to get someone to join him in an official way to say: This election was corrupt. It was not corrupt. And people began resigning, as in William Barr.
And so the president was trying to use that power to convince people. And then – this, I think, brings us to another point where when Americans look at this and say: Is that what a president should do, should be trying to pressure a career official at the Department of Justice? That’s a question that even people who liked President Trump or voted for President Trump could ask themselves. Is that what you would want after an election? And so the president, to his final moment in office, was trying to exert that kind of power.
MS. ALCINDOR: And that power – trying to exert that power – there’s this idea in my mind that the threat continues, Ryan. That there’s this – that there’s this ongoing wave of people who believe in President Trump. And I’m also struck by the idea that Officer Daniel Hodges said, that this was a White nationalist insurrection. Thread those two together, and the threat that still continues here.
MR. REILLY: Yeah, I mean, race was obviously a major component of this. It was an overwhelmingly White crowd. I think in terms of the threat that is faced – you know, I remember talking – immediately after the election I spoke with an FBI informant. This was less than a week afterwards. And this is when Trump was spreading all of these lies about the stolen election. And what he told me – he predicted exactly what was going to happen. He said that Donald Trump is walking these people to the line, and then when they do something about it he’s going to say: Well, I didn’t tell them to do that. And that’s exactly what happened.
Because this was a situation where if you actually believe that the election was stolen, if you actually believe that this was 1776 2.0 – 1776 wasn’t a peaceful event. That was a violent event. And if you actually believe the election is being stolen, some people who believe that are going to do something about it and put themselves on the line. And I think that the predictability of this is something that, you know, is going to be a question that is going to have – the FBI is going to have to answer, the Justice Department is going to answer, and I think the commission is going to be very interested in that going forward.
MS. SCOTT: And the new Capitol Police chief is also preparing for this too. He’s maybe a couple days in on the job. I talked to him this week, and I asked him if he’s concerned about ongoing threats; he said I’d be foolish if I wasn’t. And he actually said he believes that January 6th could happen again, something like that, but he thinks the department would be better prepared now than they were on January 6th, that day – but they’re on high alert still.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s such a good point that they’re on high alert and that it’s good, in some ways, that they feel like they’re more prepared because obviously this threat still continues.
Now I want to turn to the pandemic. On Thursday, President Biden announced incentives and requirements to get more Americans vaccinated.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We’ve made it our first and top priority to have available vaccines for every eligible American, and that’s never going to change as long as I’m here. And it’s a shame – it’s just such a shame to squander that blessing.
MS. ALCINDOR: His remarks came after the CDC recommended that vaccinated Americans mask up again in areas with substantial or high infection rates. According to the CDC, nearly two-thirds of the counties in America fall under that category, and many of those places are in the South. Yet, partisan political battles remain at the center of this pandemic. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a tweet that the mask changes at the Capitol were not based on science and he said, quote, “liberal government officials want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state.” In response, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had sharp words for McCarthy.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) To say that wearing a mask is not based on science, I think, is not wise. The Republican Party has been delinquent in embracing the science that people need to be vaccinated.
MS. ALCINDOR: Joining us now is Dan Diamond, national health reporter for The Washington Post. Thank you so much for being here, Dan. Now, an internal CDC document revealed this week said that the Delta variant appears to cause more severe illness, to be as contagious as the chicken pox, and is more likely to cause breakthrough infections. All of those things scare me. What more do we know about the science behind the changes we saw this week and the possible danger ahead? We’re having a bit of a challenge with audio, so I’m going to go to Kelly, and we’ll come back to you, Dan.
I’ll come to you, Kelly. The White House is obviously – they’re struggling with this. They didn’t want to be here. Just, you know, in this month we had President Biden celebrating normalcy. What are you hearing from the White House and the way that they’re dealing with this?
MS. O’DONNELL: The big difference for the Biden White House is they came in with a mission to try to get vaccines out the door and into arms. And now this is really the first time they’re grappling with a dynamic change in the virus itself, a new level of danger, a new level of threat. As the president left the White House on Friday evening, going to Camp David, he was asked: Should Americans expect more restrictions and guidelines? He said: In all probability.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Dan, I hear that you’re back. It’s 2021, so of course that would happen. So, Dan, I’ll lead into you again. Tell us about the science, the danger ahead.
DAN DIAMOND: Well, I don’t know if I can critique the CDC on messaging challenges if I’m having my own, but. (Laughter.) What the CDC found, Yamiche, out of Massachusetts, as my Post colleagues first reported, was that the Delta variant is really challenging what we knew about the protection from vaccines. The vaccines still remain overall very protected. But in a study of several hundred inflections in Provincetown, it appeared, first, that vaccinated people were getting infected and spreading the virus to others and, second, that the Delta variant itself is moving more quickly than previous versions of the virus.
If you’re even looking across the country, the number of cases has gone surging up at the beginning of the month – around 12,000-13,000 per day. The Post average now is 75,000 per day. So the CDC looked at that guidance and made a very difficult call. About two months ago the agency had said: If you are vaccinated you don’t need to wear a mask in most places. Now they’re saying in most of those counties across the United States where transmission is relatively high masking remains a significant tactic before everyone gets vaccinated to make sure that people who are vaccinated, who are not vaccinated, they’re both not spreading the virus.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Dan, I want to stick with you. You talk to health officials in states who are literally begging people to be vaccinated. I wonder, how much do you think people can be persuaded? What happens if we can’t persuade more people? And then long term I’m also wondering can you talk a bit about vaccine mandates and if that – if people can’t be persuaded, might vaccine mandates be the way to do this when you – if you’re hearing from experts?
MR. DIAMOND: So, Yamiche, I did speak with the California health secretary earlier this week, who said we were in a phase of getting down on our knees asking people to take the shot; that has really slowed down. Overall, about 60 percent of American adults are fully vaccinated. The rate has very slowly crept up. So these incentives, be them vaccine lotteries, asking nicely, it just doesn’t seem to work given that so many holdouts have been just set in their ways, set in their beliefs, for a variety of reasons, whether they’re not sure about the science of the vaccine – which I should say has been proven to be effective overall and even in this new study CDC found if you have the vaccine significantly protective against the new Delta variant. But the number of Americans in states who are holding out, that has led California to require all health workers, all state workers to get vaccinated or prove that they’re not testing positive for COVID. We’ve seen President Biden echo that on a national level. They don’t want to call it a mandate at the White House – “mandate” is kind of a dirty word in politics for anyone who remembers the Affordable Care Act – they’re calling it a “directive,” but same idea, that you are going to have some pressures put on you to get vaccinated. If you’re not vaccinated, there will be restrictions based on what you can do at work.
MS. ALCINDOR: I want to come to you, Rachel, because Dan said something – one, you’re – asking nicely doesn’t seem to be working – (laughter) – but, two, “mandate” is seen as a sort of bad word when you think about the White House’s strategy here. What are you hearing about how much politics and political backlash, really, is factoring in to how the White House thinks about this? I should tell you sources tell me of course we’re not thinking about politics, but obviously it’s a thing.
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, the White House, they insist that this is not political, right, the virus does not discriminate, but what we do know from looking at polling data also is that vaccinations are along party lines and you have Republicans in this country that are less likely to get vaccinated. And the White House continues to say that people listen most to the leaders in their own communities, right, and so when you have some Republican leaders – not all, but some Republican leaders that are pushing messages saying that these masks don’t really matter, do not wear them, they’re mocking some of the CDC guidances in states like Florida – you heard it straight from the governor even this week – that is going to be a challenge for this administration and a significant one for President Biden. I think he knows that overall the success of his administration is going to depend in large part the way that the American public views how he is handling the response of this virus, and that’s a big reason why he called out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week, praising him for encouraging Americans to get vaccinated.
MS. ALCINDOR: We only have about 45 seconds left, but I want to come to Kelly. You know how to – you know how to wrap something up in 45 seconds. (Laughter.) Infrastructure happened, but will it – will this deal actually hold up? Will it – will it happen?
MS. O’DONNELL: The fact that we are as far as we are with a bipartisan agreement is worthy of praise for those involved. That is a big statement. Now, getting it across the finish line, I think we’re going to be talking about infrastructure many more times in the weeks ahead because it will be complicated and difficult, but there is such a desire on the part of both Republicans and Democrats to get something done that I think that will is – at the moment has the momentum.
MS. ALCINDOR: And I have only about maybe 10 to 15 seconds, but Ryan, I want to pull you in really quickly, which is these – what connects these two things that we were talking about tonight is the fact that there is a conspiracy and that threat still exists. What do you make of that?
MR. REILLY: Yeah, I mean, there is just – I mean, you can see those ties, right, between the Capitol attack and, you know, the pandemic as just like there’s a lot of political leanings that are not believing what the government is saying here and don’t trust in the government, and that’s a real problem I think for democracy going forward and for the nation’s health.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, thank you to Dan, to Ryan, Kelly, and Rachel for joining us and sharing your reporting, and don’t forget to tune in to the PBS NewsHour on Monday as we report on water wars, how drought in the West is exacerbating the fight between farmers and native peoples.
And before we go tonight, I want to send a special message to Simone Biles and the USA Olympic women’s gymnastics team. Biles said she withdrew from competitions this week for mental health reasons. Sunisa Lee went on to win gold in the individual all-around. The team won silver. Now, Biles told NBC we hope America still loves us. It struck me so much. I want to say, well, Simone, we absolutely love you. We cherish you. We thank you for being an example of taking care of yourself during tough times.
Now we’ll continue the conversation on the Washington Week Extra coming up next at 8:30 Eastern time streaming live on our website, YouTube, and Facebook. Thank you so much for joining us for this important conversation. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.